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Vivid pink plum trees, white cherry trees, soft masses of yellow wattle, japonica hedges with pink flowers leaping out of new green leaves, white cockatoos browsing on the ground. That was Canberra during the Rematerialising colour conference at ANU's Centre for Cross-Cultural Research. How does the outsider linguist find out if speakers of another language have colour terms? This important question for field linguists and lexicographers was raised in two papers on the Australian language Warlpiri by David Nash and Anna Wierzbicka.

David's paper Colour and the Ordinary Working Linguist showed how field linguists might go about understanding words for how things look, by focussing what things the words apply to, that is, on the set of objects denoted by a word (its extension). He listed two attempts at this for Warlpiri: H.K. Fry's showing of colour samples to Warlpiri people in 1951, and the administration of the World Color Survey protocol by Steve and Bev Swartz at Lajamanu in 1978.

Showing a large number of speakers a large number of Munsell colour chips and asking them how to describe them is a way of reducing the level of bias provided by attempts to elicit or understand word meanings through gathering texts and translations of those texts. The stimulus is as close to independence from language as one can get, (although of course a Munsell chip is a cultural artefact). If a large number of speakers come up with similar names for similar areas of the colour chart, that is something which requires explanation, especially if similar patterns are seen in tests performed on speakers of other languages. The existence of similar patterns has nothing to do with English colour terms. The Warlpiri World Color Survey data (23 speakers) does show both patterns and individual variation - two old speakers came up with just three terms, and one speaker compared many chips with how the sky looked at different times of day. But overall, Fry's results are broadly compatible with the World Color Survey results for Warlpiri.

Interpretation of the patterns of names produced in response to stimuli is difficult, and one has to take care not to assign English terms to those patterns. That is, in trying to interpret what a word means, we cannot assume that kardirri means 'white', because speakers produced this word when looking at chips with colors which English speakers might call 'white'. This was the topic of Anna's paper Deconstructing 'colour', exploring indigenous meanings. She focussed on determining the senses (intensions) of words - that is, on finding language-specific categories. The Warlpiri lack a word approximating the English word 'colour'. Anna claims that, if speakers do not have a word for a category such as colour, it is hard to say that in their minds they see the world in terms of a cognitive category colour (she's not denying that they have colour vision).

Anna suggests that we should examine more closely how the Warlpiri talk about how things look. To do this, she and her research assistant Helen Bromhead examined dictionary entries in the Warlpiri-English Dictionary (via the Kirrkirr interface), and argued for the importance of the properties 'visual conspicuousness' (the startling pink prunus trees), 'things shining somewhere' (sunlight gleaming on the white cockatoos), 'visual contrasts within an object' (the dappled pink and green of the japonica hedge), and creating colour reference by comparison with things in the world around (kunjuru 'smoke', kunjuru-kunjuru 'like smoke', a term conventionally applied to smoke-coloured things). The Dictionary is a good starting-place for raising such hypotheses, but not for testing them, since it is a collection of all words, with little comment on whether they are used frequently or not, and since the words come from several dialects.

More controversially, Anna argued against using the word 'colour' in the English definitions and translations in the dictionary, because this creates or reinforces a belief that the Warlpiri have a linguistic category of 'colour'. Howard Morphy, an anthropologist who studies art, raised a good point in discussion - he argued that a lexical gap like not having a word for 'colour' need not be proof of the lack of a concept of 'colour'. In talking with Yolngu people from Arnhem Land he has observed how they link white ochre, white feathers and sea foam. The only visual link he can see is their whiteness. Thus, he suggests, even though there is no Yolngu word for colour, they have a covert colour category.

There were good points on how people talk about colour in Luke Taylor's paper Paint as Power among Kuninjku artists. How
bark painters talk about the ochres and the cross-hatching rarrk that they use, how painters use combinations of colours and cross-hatching to create colour illusions, and use visual effects to create emotional effects in the viewers. I was struck by his comment that one renowned painter John Mawurndjul spends much effort in getting ochres from different places and on grinding them finely to get more saturated hues. Luke said that the discussion of what are good and bad paintings comes up mostly in private training sessions, where older painters train younger painters. Some ideas relevant to linguistic analysis included talk of liveliness, and freshness of paintings, of shining, of something ?colour? jumping out at you from the painting, as well as of good and bad rarrk. He said that such ideas come out in discussion when the speaker knows that the listener understands a lot about the topic (through having tried to learn to paint on bark), not in casual conversation.

Howard Morphy noted that the same cross-hatching techniques are important for bark painters among the Yolngu, neighbours of the Kunwinjku. They have no word for it, although some know that it's called rarrk by the Kunwinjku. Another lexical gap which doesn't seem to indicate lack of the concept.

As Tom Honeyman says in his post on plants, field linguists need to work with botanists for plant names. This conference illustrated for me the value of working with ethnographers of art and artists for understanding words for describing how things look.

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